Three existential threats to mankind – nuclear weapons, climate change and Internet information warfare
Sixteen-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg has been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019.
The teenage climate activist was the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, but it was awarded to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, for his efforts to “achieve peace and international cooperation.”
Greta inspired millions of young people to take action against climate change, launching a grassroots campaign when she was 15, skipping school every Friday to demonstrate outside the Swedish Parliament, pushing for her government to meet its ambitious goals to curb carbon emissions.
Her actions quickly captured people’s imagination, and in September this year millions of people took to the streets in cities across the world to support her cause.
This is a significant event and reason why Malaysians must pay greater attention to the issue of climate change, which has been described for over a decade as one of the two existential threats to humanity, with the planet earth depicted as “on a runaway train to ecological and climate collapse”.
But a third existential threat to humanity joined the twin causes of potential global catastrophes, i.e. nuclear warfare and climate change, this year.
Since 1947, an organization known as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists developed a theoretical model to describe just how close humanity is to the brink.
The end result was a clock, dubbed The Doomsday Clock, whose countdown to midnight signified the approaching end of humanity.
Over the years, scientists have adjusted the clock according to their assessment of the risk of destruction. In 1953, the clock was moved to 11:58 as Americans and Soviets developed the hydrogen bomb, a weapon with destructive capabilities orders of magnitude greater than the Hiroshima bomb. Given the effects of nuclear winter alone, such a war would have almost certainly wiped out all of humanity, the catastrophic event known as omnicide.
After that, the world somewhat relaxed.
In 2007, a new variable for measuring omnicidal dangers was added: climate change - the effects of a steadily warming planet pose an enormous threat to organized human existence.
Global warming increases the frequency and severity of natural catastrophes such as wildfires, floods, freak storms and droughts. Increased carbon in the atmosphere is causing decreased nutritional levels in crops. Coastal areas around the world will sink under water, and entire countries will be uninhabitable due to excessive heat. The effects of this would be enough to tear apart the world order.
Since then, the clock has been inching closer to destruction. In 2018, the Doomsday Clock moved to 2 minutes to midnight, as close as it has ever been in the clock's history.
In 2019, the Bulletin announced that it was still 2 minutes to midnight as information warfare techniques posed another threat to civilization. In a world of fake news and alternative facts, the information ecosystem is threatened with utter chaos.
The Bulletin writes that “by manipulating the natural cognitive predispositions of human beings, information warriors can exacerbate prejudices, biases, and ideological differences.”
The modern information society makes such manipulation exponentially more dangerous. Society will not be able to deal with the problems we face if citizens cannot trust the information they encounter.
The Bulletin says, “This new abnormal is simply too volatile and dangerous to accept as a continuing state of world affairs.”
In the age of polarisation, fake news and hate speech of the social media, Malaysians must develop the media literacy to have the critical thinking skills to differentiate fact from fake, truth from lies so as to be active citizens.
Can Malaysians learn from the lessons of dishonest, unethical, irresponsible and incendiary information warfare on the social media of other democracies and countries, not only on fake news and hate speech but also for instance, the emergence of a fake fact-check website in the current United Kingdom general election?